Early last year, In Flames lost their last remaining founding member, Jesper Strömblad, so he could get treatment for his problems with alcoholism. Fan reaction was certainly mixed, with some saying the band was no longer In Flames, and others looking forward to how they would move on without Jesper.
After nearly a year and a half of waiting, fans got their answer with the release of Sounds of a Playground Fading. The album’s guitars were recorded entirely by Björn Gelotte, In Flames’ co-lead and rhythm axeman since 1999. The result is surprising.
In Flames has been steadily moving towards a more metalcore and nu-metal influenced sound since Reroute to Remain in 2002, and while this album still has some of those influences, it has some of the heaviest riffs they’ve done since then. The guitar work is a big step up from their previous album A Sense of Purpose – it’s more present, it’s heavier, and it’s much more at the forefront of the mix. Gelotte has brought back the heavier elements of the band’s classic melodic death metal style (“A New Dawn”), while making sure it still sounds modern (“Deliver Us”).
While much of the album’s bulk is good old familiar In Flames, there are a few sonic experiments as well. “The Attic” is reminiscent of the instrumental tracks on Whoracle and Colony, but it has more free-form guitar playing, and features a largely spoken-word performance by Anders Friden. In a similar vein comes “Jester’s Door”, a short track featuring a Hammond organ, an almost electronic drumbeat that kicks in halfway through, and more spoken-word by Friden. And in the album’s most perplexing twist, it closes with “Liberation” – a rock ballad with a powerful chorus and clean vocals. It’s completely against what is expected of In Flames, but it sounds great, and shows that they’re willing to try experimenting with new sounds.
Friden has taken an even more experimental slant on this album, besides the two-tracks he provides spoken-word vocals for. Similar to what he did on A Sense of Purpose, his vocal style has moved even more into his half-screaming, half-singing territory. Anders is not the world’s best singer by any means, but by some miracle, his voice can fit into the slower parts of the songs quite well. He has less success with his new screaming style, though, with his vocals often sounding weak and almost forced. In some spots he does go into a lower, more powerful growl, which he still sounds comfortable in, but unfortunately this does not happen much. But even despite this, it’s probably for the better – with the exception of “A New Dawn” (quite possibly the best song on the album), I can’t picture any of these songs with his Whoracle-era vocals – it just wouldn’t work.
Even though not every song on Sounds of a Playground Fading is a hit, and Anders’ vocals can be rough at times, this album can definitely be called a return to form. They are capable of retaining their old sound and further developing it without Jesper, and prove it here. It is a surprisingly good album from a band who’s future looked doubtful, but they persevered, and showed that they still have plenty of creative juice left in the tank.